Known for decades as the home of the religious police and stringent public decency laws, Saudi Arabia now hopes to transform itself into an entertainment hub.
With more than 5,000 live shows, festivals and concerts planned in 56 cities nationwide this year, the kingdom will invest 240 billion riyals ($64 billion) on entertainment infrastructure over the next decade to put itself on the global tourism map, the chairman of its General Entertainment Authority said.
“We have started building this infrastructure,” Ahmed Al Khateeb told a news conference in Riyadh on Thursday.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been breaking social norms since his rise to power in 2015, including an easing of public entertainment rules in a country that practices strict gender segregation.
The speed of social changes in the kingdom have not been welcomed by conservatives, who see it undermining the strictly devout form of Islamic practice they espouse. While the power of the kingdom’s religious police has been curtailed, it still patrols streets in Riyadh and some Saudis question privately whether the crown prince is pushing forward too quickly.
Developing a local entertainment industry may be an attempt to redirect leisure spending by Saudis, who plow billions of dollars annually into travel abroad, back into the kingdom.
Work has begun on the the country’s first opera house, Al Khateeb said. Last year, the entertainment authority helped to create 17,500 jobs and attracted 8 million people to events; by 2030 it aims to create more than 220,000 jobs. The government is also offering grants up to 1 million riyals to small entertainment companies, he said.
In keeping with Prince Mohammed’s declaration last year that he was returning Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam,” the government now sponsors concerts that draw mixed-gender crowds. Women will soon be allowed to drive.
The Public Investment Fund, headed by the crown prince, said in September that it was setting up a $2.7 billion entertainment company that would aim to serve more than 50 million visitors a year. Saudi Arabia has also lifted a 30-year ban on cinemas, foreseeing an economic contribution of $24 billion from the industry by 2030.
(Updates with quote from chairman in third paragraph.)
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